On Mice, Mules, and Swans

“No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word”

Wherever you are right now, look around yourself and consider.

“How did I end up here?”

“What choices let me to this point?”

Chances are, if you look back relatively recently there will be an act of chance, randomness, which sent you spiraling off in a new direction. The further you think back, the more events, little and big, you think of, these bits of randomness, will compound exponentially. You may come to the realization that your life as it stands today is less of a culmination of careful planning, and more of one big sick accident.

The first half of this semester represents the peak and trough of my own attempt to wrest control of where I was going from the hands of chance. I had never before in my life done such careful planning, and I had never before in my life watched such carefully laid plans, fall into such tiny pieces. There is a certain security in plans, to do lists, and deadlines, having a clear idea of where you are and where you are going. There is also a certain sickness unique to watching deadlines pass, to do lists left undone, and the very foundational assumptions that your plans were built upon crumble underneath you. To paraphrase the Scottish poem “The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry”[2]. But why? Why do plans fail and foundations crack, and why can’t we see it coming?

In noted science fiction series, The Foundation by the prolific writer Isaac Asimov, the universe is ruled by a scientific discipline called psychohistory[3], which is a combination of statistical reasoning and sociology by which psychohistorians are able to predict the future course of societies within very good margins of error. Since a universe where everything is predictable would make for a poor science fiction series, enter the Mule[4], an individual who represents the statistical error in the psychohistorian’s calculations. Even with their god like powers of prediction, Asimov’s psychohistorians are still at the mercy of chance. The emergence of one extraordinary individual changes the timeline in way’s unpredictable.

Mules are people who come into your life like a whirlwind, and have an effect that you never could have predicted. They are accidents, which come to in one way or another redefine your world. A Mule can be good or bad, or a mix of both, but whatever their effect on the trajectory of your life, it was unexpected, and unpredictable before it happened.

Noted Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writes of Black Swan Events[5]. A Black Swan, is an event which there is or was no real way to predict, has an extraordinary effect, and is often incorrectly rationalized in hindsight. Black Swans, like Asimov’s Mule, represent the far end of statistical chance. Taleb, like Asimov, focuses on the “big picture” the way chance pushes whole societies in one direction or another. On a macro-level, Black Swans are the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked World War I, the discovery of Penicillin which saved on the upwards of 100 million lives, or the invention of the internet, which would come to revolutionize the modern economy. However, I find a more compelling case for randomness to be found in looking at these Swans and Mules in the frame of the individual. In our lives Black Swans are events like the death of a friend, a robbery, or winning the lottery.

Black Swans and Mules, are the randomness inherent to the human condition. You go to a bar one night drinking, you’ve done this many times before, but tonight is different, you get in a fight outside the bar and get arrested. That is a Black Swan. You had no way of knowing that that would happen, based on all previous experience in bars, you expected to have a good time and wake up in bed. If you could go back in time and have decided not to go to that specific bar on that specific night, you almost certainly would. However, there was no way of knowing that that specific trip to a bar would have a radically different outcome from every other trip to the bar you’ve ever taken.

But let us also take the opposite proposition. You go to a bar one night drinking, you’ve done this a thousand times before, but tonight is different, you meet someone. Fast forward three months you’re happily dating, fast forward three years you’re married, fast forward three decades you’re happily retired. Had you not gone to that bar, on that night, you almost certainly never would have crossed paths with this person. You had no way of knowing that the choice of going there then, would ripple for decades, and effect every aspect of your life.

The reality is that every decision we make can be unwound like this. We never know when we will be hit by a bus, or meet someone who will change us forever. This is randomness. We make too many choices whose effects will ripple outwards in unpredictable ways to ever fully be in control. This realization can paralyze people accustomed to the allusion of control. The thought that by every action or inaction, we may be courting disaster or salvation, is, terrifying. Everything becomes a terrible mistake, or a missed opportunity.

In response to a loss of control to randomness, the religious and secular alike will often fall into the mental trap of “fate”. The idea that what happened or didn’t happen was fate, and would (or wouldn’t) have happened, in one way or another, regardless of choice. That even if you hadn’t gone to the bar that night, you would have met that person somewhere, sometime, if it was “meant to be”, it’ll be. Through the mechanism of fate, individuals remove the burden of choice from themselves, and place it in the hands of God, a muse, or some strange cosmic trajectory whereby things that are supposed to happen just happen.

People however are funny this way. Good things that happen are fate. Meet a pretty girl, get the promotion, win the lotto, that’s fate. That was meant to be, that would have happened come hell or high water, at one time or another. However, bad things, people often assume, are things of chance or choice. Car crash, bar fight, DUI, these are avoidable results of decisions by yourself, others, or a combination thereof. These events are your fault, someone else’s fault, or cosmic accident, but rarely will people call them fate.

Many will fall into self-blame, taking on their shoulders the entire responsibility of the effects of a given decision. The simple fact is, to get into a bar fight, there needs to be at least two people involved. While every individual choice can be unwound to show far reaching effects, every effect has more than one choice made by more than one person associated with it. For you to get into that bar fight, you needed to be in that bar, on that night, at that time, having drank exactly as much as you did, as did the other person. Yes, you could have prevented something bad from happening by breaking one link in that chain of choices, but so could someone else, so could the weather, so could any number of other people. The weight of the effect of randomness cannot be laid solely at your feet.

Humans are bad at being able to foresee the effects of our individual choices, let alone series of choices. Entering into the equation the choices of everyone else shows the pure randomness of the world we reside in. Black Swans are the product of an infinite number of choices made by disparate individuals, resulting in an effect, which could not have been foreseen. Mules are the product of individual personalities, with all their complexities and subtleties, combining and reacting in a way that cannot have been foreseen. The truth is, we are all a Mule to someone, and whether known or not, choices we have all made have contributed to someone’s Black Swan.

This is the part where I admit, I don’t have an answer. Are Mules and Black Swans a product of fate, chance, or choice? Are we being played for fools by a celestial puppet master or are we just helpless blind men in a world of too many unknowns?

I don’t know.

But what I think is this: we are masters of our own fate. Our day-to-day lives are ruled by randomness. We have no way of predicting how going to Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts for coffee, or being stuck in traffic for an extra five minutes, will cascade throughout our lives. Everyone can think back to a seemingly insignificant choice, which had far-reaching and unprecedented consequences. Worrying about the “coulda shoulda woulda” of mundane decisions will do nothing but drive us to madness. The way we react to randomness is what truly defines us. Similar decisions made consistently, deliberately, and repeatedly over the course of time will in the end mute randomness. In a world where plans fall apart and we are seemingly at the mercy of chance; resilience in the face of adversity is the ultimate virtue.

We are, in the end, the sum of the choices we make and the people who have touched us. A Mule or Black Swan can shift that total in one direction or another, but they cannot overcome the sheer mass of choices we make and interactions we have.


[1] Fooled By Randomness Nassim Nicholas Taleb
[2] To A Mouse Robert Burns
[3] Psychohistory
[4] The Mule
[5] Black Swan Theory

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